TVA board nominee says Memphis is utility's 'red-headed stepchild'

Senators voice support for attorney John L. Ryder as newest Tennessee Valley Authority director

John L. Ryder
John L. Ryder

The newest nominee to become a director of the Tennessee Valley Authority said Tuesday he hopes to bring more of a West Tennessee perspective to the nine-member board that governs America's biggest government utility.

Memphis attorney John L. Ryder said he is eager to represent Memphis, whose city-owned Memphis Light, Gas & Water utility buys about 12 percent of all of the power in TVA's seven-state region.

photo John L. Ryder

Senators speak

"John Ryder has been nominated to fill the current vacancy on the board. With a wide-ranging legal background, John's experience as an attorney will be of great value to the TVA board."- U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn."I am convinced John will make an excellent TVA Board member, and I strongly support his nomination."- U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

"TVA's headquarters is in Knoxville and its operations center is in Chattanooga," Ryder told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee's Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety during his confirmation hearing. "Over in Memphis, we're kind of the red-headed stepchild. We feel like we kind of get left behind. I would urge TVA to step it up in that regard."

Ryder would become the second Memphis resident on the TVA board if he is confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Ron Walter, general manager for Memphis television station WREG-TV, was appointed to the TVA board by President Barack Obama, who also appointed Memphis accountant Lynn Evans, who became the first African-American woman to ever head the TVA last year before her term on the board expired.

Ryder said if he had been on the board, he would have urged TVA to be more sensitive to local concerns about the Memphis Sand Aquifer before the utility proposed tapping into the aquifer with deep wells to cool the new gas-fired power plant TVA is building to replace its Allen Fossil Plant in Memphis.

TVA abandoned the well water source after finding arsenic, lead and fluoride in shallow monitoring wells around the Allen coal plant. Recent tests found no toxins in the aquifer that supplies drinking water to Memphis, but Ryder said he wished TVA would have been more sensitive to local water concerns.

Asked what he would have done differently if he was on the TVA board when the utility was preparing plans for the new Allen gas plant, Ryder said he "would have brought a sensitivity to the concerns of the local community about the potential contamination of the water supply, which seemed to be overlooked by TVA."

Ryder said he favors a diverse power portfolio by TVA and will work to protect the environment and public lands in the region, which he said has helped make tourism one of Tennessee's biggest industries.

But when asked if he believes that fossil fuels contribute to climate change, Ryder said he in unsure of the causes of global climate change and how much man-made causes may or may not be contributing to weather changes.

"I don't know the science that well on that issue," Ryder said. "I do know that as a consumer, I am in favor of clean air and water."

Ryder, who served as general counsel at the Republican National Committee from 2013-17 and is a longtime GOP activist, has no previous electric utility experience. But he assured senators on Tuesday that his involvement in Republican politics would not overly influence his decisions at TVA.

"I fully appreciate that the role of a member of the board of TVA is outside of politics," Ryder said.

At the same time, Ryder said, "my political experience has given me greater appreciation for the wants, needs and aspirations of those served by TVA."

If confirmed, he would serve through May 2021 and would replace Michael McWherter, a Democrat whose term has expired.

Ryder was praised during Tuesday's hearing by both of Tennessee's U.S. senators, Republicans Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, who each urged their Senate colleagues to quickly confirm Ryder.

Alexander said TVA's current leadership has made decisions to lower power rates, keep the air clean and encourage industry to locate in the Tennessee Valley.

"John Ryder is a great choice to continue on that path," he said.

Ryder, a partner in the Memphis law firm of Harris Shelton Hanover Walsh, was named the 2016 Republican Lawyer of the Year by the Republican National Lawyers Association and he was recognized by Business Tennessee magazine as among the best 101 lawyers in Tennessee.

Last year, Trump nominated business executives from Georgia, Alabama and Kentucky and the deputy head of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory to fill other vacancies on the TVA board after the five-year terms of those appointed by Obama ended.

The TVA board is currently chaired by Richard Howorth, a former mayor of Oxford, Miss., who lives less than 80 miles south of Memphis and was appointed by Obama.

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 757-6340.

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